Three former high-ranking officials say while an American victory in the Persian Gulf war may be a foregone conclusion, it is equally certain a U.S. presence will be needed in the region long after the war ends.

"We're the world's richest country; we're the leader of the free world and the world's largest consumer of crude," said Adm. William Crowe, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman during the Reagan and Bush administrations. "All those things mean we're in the Middle East for 40 years - whether we like it or not."Crowe, a featured speaker at the Richmond Forum Saturday night, made the comment in a pre-forum meeting with reporters. Also on hand were former Secretary of State Al Haig and former national security adviser Robert McFarlane.

Crowe, McFarlane and Haig agreed the United States should win the war against Iraq, now in its second week. But they also said once Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is defeated and his forces driven from Kuwait, which they invaded Aug. 2, some type of peacekeeping military force will be required in the gulf.

"It's going to take an outside presence" to stabilize the region, said McFarlane, who served under President Reagan.

McFarlane said he envisions a small international or American sea-based force "offshore, over the horizon, able to respond."

Haig concurred. "This war is tough, but getting a stable postwar environment in the Middle East is going to be even tougher," said Reagan's first secretary of state.

Crowe, who last month called on President Bush to give economic sanctions against Iraq more time to work before going to war, said he supports the White House now the decision to fight Iraq has been made.

"You should not go (to war) lightly," said Crowe, who's 33-year-old son is a Marine posted in the gulf. But "once you do, go with all your heart and soul and succeed.

"I don't think the president ever wanted sanctions," Crowe said. "I think the argument (whether to continue them) was more intellectual" than serious.

The former Joint Chiefs chairman called the gulf oil spill "a futile exercise. I don't know what (Saddam) was thinking," he said.

McFarlane said the powerful pro-war sentiment in this country will peter out rapidly once film and photographs of Iraqi and American casualties make their way to the United States from the war.

"It will be a very sharp moment of truth for most Americans, for we are a romantic society, hopeful for a peaceful solution to problems, I think it will evoke outrage. I don't think anyone can be failed to be moved by the astonishing scale of death they're going to see."